The Soviet Abuse of Indigenous Peoples

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) promotes a supposedly pro-Indigenous people platform. They stress ending the “dispossession and exploitation of indigenous people” while also recognizing the sovereignty of Native Americans. The Communist Party USA’s political program also stresses the inclusion of indigenous people in the working-class movement. While they are partially right in calling for the recognition of tribal sovereignty (free enterprise would help more than socialism), they must also recognize the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, the representative of 20th century socialism, against the native tribes of Siberia.

I alluded to the abuses of minority groups by the Soviet Union in a recent article, but I did not go into much detail regarding the exploitation. The abuse of the native Siberians provides a case study.

Upon solidifying their control of Russia, the Bolsheviks inherited a vast swath of the land known as Siberia. They would use this land for their gulags, but there was also the issue of the native tribes.

Historian Benson Bobrick describes the abuses of the native Siberians in his book East of the Sun. Although the Soviets proclaimed sovereignty for the “different nationalities” in Russia, the Siberians’ fate was not kind (p. 454). Rather than simply allowing the natives autonomy, the Soviets set up the Committee of Assistance to the People of the North.

This was the beginning of the cruel joke of sovereignty under the Soviets, which was not real sovereignty in the slightest. The Soviet structure gave no “real autonomy” (p. 455); the Siberians were essentially under the direction of Russian bureaucrats.

While there were some improvements to hygiene and health care (such would be expected when giving aid to a more-or-less primitive society), the Soviets took steps that frustrated and broke down Siberian culture. Initially, the native languages were replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet; the state encouraged the study of the Russian, rather than native, language. This is a tendency seen in many imperialistic endeavors (For another example: the British crown banned the Gaelic language in Scotland in 1616).

Shamans and other leaders were eliminated through dekulakization, Tartar mosques were closed, temples were destroyed, and native farming habits were forcibly displaced by the chaotic methods of central planners. The Cossacks were treated in a similar manner; De-Cossackization took place, which was the systematic deportation and execution of Cossacks, another Siberian minority group. The Arctic Siberians were managed by state planners sent to make sure that reindeer herding kept to the official plan, a plan that in no way could account for the thousands of years of specialized knowledge that the Siberians learned about their unique agricultural methods (p. 455).

The contrast between the Soviets and the Siberians was most evident when the communist modes of production were imposed on the primitive “communism” of the Siberians. Bobrick states:

Although at first the government supposed that primitive native communism would make concepts of modern communism easier to apply, native ideas of sharing were found to be too generous, notably disconnected from the labor theory of value, and their failure to distinguish between work and leisure judged to be “unproductive” and “ideologically wrong.”

The Soviets were trying to fit a square through a circular hole. Official plans could not account for the needs of the population. No matter though. The bureaucrats continued their work on the Siberians, and when WW2 began, the natives were conscripted, forced to fight a war they had no stake in. “20% of the total native population was conscripted and sent to the front,” (p. 455).

Rather than giving the Siberians autonomy, the Soviets micromanaged their affairs and when war broke out, sent a large portion of the population to the front lines to die for Mother Russia. The natives were treated as resources to be shifted around and disposed of rather than free peoples.

Bobrick continues to tell of the native people’s dealings with the Soviet Union, but the details highlighted above are the most glaring injustices. Today, the Siberians are still under the yoke of Russia, albeit a less authoritarian regime; however, parallels abound. The war in Ukraine is leading to the conscription of native Siberians.

A modern approach to the question of native sovereignty is simple. Siberians should be allowed to secede from the Russia or become completely autonomous regions, allowing spontaneous arrangements to reign rather than central controls. The same goes for the native tribes in the United States and the rest of the world, repeating mistakes made by Russia’s Soviet forebearers.

Defenders of the free market would acknowledge this solution, but so should socialists. In keeping with their various platforms, modern socialists should fully acknowledge the abuses of native Siberians by the Soviet Union and actively advocate for Siberian sovereignty just as they do for Native Americans.